At times, the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) has seemed to hinge on the 560-mile line that divides Turkey and Syria. The United States and Russia have frequently urged Ankara to seal off its southern border in order to cut off supplies and volunteers destined for the radical group. For much of the conflict, Turkish officials have responded coolly to such calls. Some have argued that closing off the border is impossible. ISIS has seized significant portions of territory on the Syrian side of the perimeter, and walling off, or manning, such a distance would be expensive and require a huge number of security personnel. Further, stopping all traffic out of Syria would also mean turning away refugees en masse.
Some critics, including the likes of Vladimir Putin and opposition leader Selahettin Demirtaş, have argued that other factors play a role in Ankara’s approach toward its southern border. Turkey both openly and secretly supports elements of the Syrian opposition, activities that would be difficult if the border were closed. There are economic considerations as well; satellite images released in 2015 by Russia’s Defense Ministry seemed to show that Turkey is still selling petroleum via its southern frontier. Turkey and ISIS, Russian officials have argued, are in alliance in trying to make a buck. There are doubts about Russia’s charges—especially since part of the trade goes through Syrian Kurdish territory—yet evidence of other illicit dealings along the border and the continued passage of ISIS volunteers through Turkey continue to stir cynicism. The city of Gaziantep, as one local activist put it, practically functions as a “human resource center” for the ISIS.
To genuinely appreciate Ankara’s struggle to maintain and police its southern border with Syria, it is worth going back further than the current conflict. Since the Turkish Republic was born in 1923, the politics and economy of the Syrian frontier have vexed politicians and provincial residents alike.
Unlike many borders in the Middle East,
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